Natural-food firms, nonprofit to feed one of nation’s poorest regions

BOULDER — It started as food drives at concerts for jam band String Cheese Incident, but Conscious Alliance has expanded to providing food and resources to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota by partnering with major organic food companies like Justin’s and White Wave Food.

At its first concert in 2002, the organization collected enough food to provide 4,000 meals at the Pine Ridge reservation, a space that is the size of Connecticut but has only one grocery store. In the ensuing 15 years, the group has grown to 95 drives per year, collected 65,000 meals during 2017, 100,000 volunteer hours and distributed 2.5 million meals total.

Conscious Alliance selected Pine Ridge as its focus because of its proximity — just a six-hour drive to Denver, the closest major city — and its economic need, said Justin Levy, executive director for Conscious Alliance. Pine Ridge encompasses the entirety of Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, as well as the southern half of Jackson County and the northwest portion of Bennett County. A study of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. finds the counties of Pine Ridge Reservation among the poorest.

The average household is about 17 people and half the population is below 18 to 21 years old.

“Our founder read a book by one of the elders and was so compelled by wanting to help that he actually found where the elder lived and went to him,” Levy said. “He said, ‘if you want to help, feed our people.’”

Conscious Alliance has taken a particular focus on feeding the youth of Pine Ridge, launching a backpack program that makes sure students have food to take home over the weekend.

For the 250 students at the Loneman School, the bags are crucial: All of the students at that school are on free and reduced lunch programs.

Having the partnership of natural food companies has been critical, Levy said. Justin’s was one of the first to get involved, at first giving time before it had the size and power to give significant amounts of food and money.

“In 2008 there were five of us at the organization,” said Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s, which makes nut butter. “We went outside to a picnic table and sat down and discussed if we should align with a nonprofit, which one and why. We were a really young company and talked about the nonprofits we knew about. Lance Gentry (the president of Justin’s who died in 2012) was really intelligent and started talking about how of the poorest counties in the U.S., seven out of 10 of them are Native American and one of the worst was just hours from here. Our jaws dropped.”

From that conversation, Justin’s started partnering with Conscious Alliance, first by volunteering to go deliver food, such as at every Thanksgiving holiday drive. As the company grew, it was able to donate money and food.

Partnerships with Suja Juice and Plum Organics helped Conscious Alliance grow. The nonprofit has 21 natural food companies listed as partners on its website, as well as other companies, musicians and supporters.

“As natural food companies grow, we know our partnerships grow too,” Levy said.

BOULDER — It started as food drives at concerts for jam band String Cheese Incident, but Conscious Alliance has expanded to providing food and resources to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota by partnering with major organic food companies like Justin’s and White Wave Food.

At its first concert in 2002, the organization collected enough food to provide 4,000 meals at the Pine Ridge reservation, a space that is the size of Connecticut but has only one grocery store. In the ensuing 15 years, the group has grown to 95 drives per year, collected 65,000 meals during 2017, 100,000 volunteer hours and distributed 2.5 million meals total.

Conscious Alliance selected Pine Ridge as its focus because of its proximity — just a six-hour drive to Denver, the closest major city — and its economic need, said Justin Levy, executive director for Conscious Alliance. Pine Ridge encompasses the entirety of Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota, as well as the southern half of Jackson County and the northwest portion of Bennett County. A study of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. finds the counties of Pine Ridge Reservation among the poorest.

The average household is about 17 people and half the population is below 18 to 21 years old.

“Our founder read a book by one of the elders and was so compelled by wanting to help that he actually found where the elder lived and went to him,” Levy said. “He said, ‘if you want to help, feed…